By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Still peculiar after all these years.
John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves premiered in 1971, was revived in 1986 and again last year in New York with a starry cast. Each time it baffles audiences and critics: is it a drama or a comedy? Is it kitchen-sink realism or goofy absurdism? And this current Isis production, under Neill Hartley’s direction, baffles again. Bolstered by an excellent cast, the script moves us more than it seems to deserve.
The show begins in a nightclub with a painfully awful medley of songs sung badly by Artie (John Zak who conveys pathos and end-of-ropeness perfectly). He is a desperate zookeeper who longs for show business glamour and success—and no wonder. Artie is married to a crazy woman, the aptly named Bananas (Renee Richman-Weisband in a delicate portrait of bewilderment) who is also desperate-- to feel something, anything. But even twenty-four hours out in the snow in her nightgown doesn’t produce so much as the sniffles much less some relief from her numb suffering.
Into this mess has come Bunny (Kirsten Quinn a wildly animated performance), Artie’s lover and bizarre downstairs neighbor who wants to run away to Hollywood with him, expecting Artie’s boyhood friend, Billy (Rob Hargraves), now a legendary movie director, will help him. Billy’s deaf mistress, Corinna (Jennifer MacMillan who is hilariously loud) turns up to complicate matters, as does Artie’s desperate son Ronnie (Eric Wunsch in a particularly disturbing portrayal conveyed entirely by gestures) who has gone AWOL from basic training and is carrying a live grenade.
There are three nuns, a photo album of longed-for food, two gratuitous chase scenes, and a crisis at the zoo, but you don’t need to hear about all that. The day of the plot is the day the Pope arrives in 1965 in New York City to address the United Nations about the war in Vietnam. Although the Pope’s celebrity and everybody’s need for a blessing and a miracle are thematic in the play, the actual papal visit is, for Guare’s purposes, a red herring.
The mystery of the play’s title is filled with disappointment, too; Artie wistfully describes a tree covered with blue leaves, and then describes how the magical turned out to be merely the prosaic as the bluebirds flew away, leaving ordinary green leaves. The concluding set directions in the script require that the stage be filled with blue leaves as our final image, but here it never happens, shifting the production’s tone to one of unredeemed sadness.
Isis Productions at Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, 9th & Walnut Sts. Through March 25. Tickets $10-25. Information: isis/ticketleap.com